Around-the-clock cable news didn’t exist in March 1965 when 3,200 protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights for African-Americans.
If it had, it would be interesting to imagine what the coverage of that march and other historical events of the 1960s Civil Rights movement might have looked like.
The protests in Ferguson, Mo. over the shooting death of Michael Brown, an African-American teen, by a white police officer that have been underway over the last two weeks provide a glimpse of what it might have looked like – throngs of reporters capturing protesters challenging law enforcement decked out in riot gear and armed with tear gas.
The similarities are very striking — the all-white police force staring down a majority African-American group of demonstrators.
But it’s not nearly as significant.
Suggesting what is and has been underway in Missouri is anything on the level of what had happened in the 1960s throughout the South for African-Americans to have the right to vote is a farce and cheapens the value of the struggles of that era.
Nonetheless, possibly for the sake of driving cable news ratings and also for self-proclaimed “journalists” with a blog or Instagram account trying to elevate themselves as part of the story – there has been the suggestion that Ferguson, Mo. in 2014 is comparable to Little Rock, Ark. in 1957 or Selma in 1965.
If you ever have the opportunity, make a two-hour trip up to Selma in March to witness the commemoration of the “Bloody Sunday” protest march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
John Lewis, now a congressman representing a district located outside of Atlanta, tells how current-day politicians use the event as a photo-op, to show they’re sympathetic to the plight of race relations. In 2007, then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made sure they had a very public presence at the Selma event.
And it wasn’t that long after that both announced their candidacies for the U.S. presidency.
Lewis, however, pointed out politicians were not quite as eager to participate in the initial march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge when he and Hosea Williams endeavored to lead the first Selma-to-Montgomery march.
State and local law enforcement attacked the group of some 600 marchers led by Lewis and Williams with billy clubs and tear gas. Two days later, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the effort. Then finally, much to the chagrin of then-Alabama Gov. George Wallace, President Lyndon B. Johnson federalized the Alabama National Guard and from March 21, 1965 through March 25, 1965, the Selma-to-Montgomery march took place.
Had cable news been around, it probably would have been an around-the-clock event. But conduct this thought experiment in your head: Imagine how CNN, FNC and MSNBC might have handled covering the historic event.
Would Martin Luther King, Jr. have rushed off every afternoon at 6 p.m. to do a MSNBC show like Al Sharpton? It’s hard to imagine that.
If the Internet had existed, would reporters have found ways to make themselves part of the story, like The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post’s Ryan Reilly had when they were arrested by local police?
The proliferation of journalism on the web has done a lot of good. But it’s also created a narcissistic environment where reporters are more interested self-exposure than giving the play-by-play.
When the media is the focus, it diminishes the event. There has been a lot of discussion about reporters, TV cameras, etc. in Ferguson. Don Lemon, Anderson Cooper, Chris Hayes, Jake Tapper – when you think about Ferguson, those names are part of the story. However, you don’t read a lot about the media in 1960s when the Civil Rights Era occurred.
Perhaps if you had a bunch of cable news channels and news websites in the 1960s, we could talk more about how the media covered the civil rights struggles.
There’s also an added political component.
What you’re witnessing now in Ferguson is more along the lines of political opportunism than overcoming any civil rights hurdles. Albeit it tragic that Michael Brown lost his life, examples of these types white-on-black incidents that would fuel a narrative suggesting we have a level of racial strife in America that is anywhere near what it was 50 years ago are few and far between.
However, if that narrative is driven home, a bloc of Democratic voters might be now more motivated to show up to vote, especially in November when you have some Democrats on the ropes.
Getting African-Americans the right to vote and desegregation were two of the hallmark achievements of the 1960s push. But what kind of historical change could come out of Ferguson? De-militarization of the police? A rise in voter registrations in Ferguson? That hardly measures up to the historic significance of what King and his contemporaries achieved.
What we’ve seen over the last two-and-a-half weeks outside of St. Louis – it may look and feel like what happened during the Civil Rights Era. But it is hardly as meaningful, so just don’t compare the two.